Jargonbuster: Dangerous drivers

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The World Today Published 1 April 2015 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

Do you carry a key driver with you at all times? Many people seem to. ‘High fructose corn syrup, once marketed as a preferable to sugar, has now been identified as a key driver of the obesity epidemic in the US,’ reported The Guardian the other day. The Daily Telegraph told us that ‘consumers were likely to remain key drivers of the recovery’. The Daily Mail identified ‘wealth as a key driver in encouraging couples to marry and stay married’. The Independent said: ‘Climate change was a key driver of the Syrian uprising.’

You might have thought a key driver was something Doctor Who uses to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, but it appears to be an even more powerful device than any wielded by a Time Lord. It can make people fat, cause the economy to grow, coax couples into getting married and even harness the energy of global warming to cause civil wars.

There was once a time – happier and more innocent – when a driver meant a motorist. Margaret Thatcher spoke of the great car economy and drivers, often with those gloves with leather backs and fabric panels, were an important group of target voters. They may even have been a key demographic.

Then we found ourselves travelling on the information superhighway, which was what some people called the internet in the early days, and a driver became a bit of software that told a printer what to do and often went wrong. Then a driver become a word that was used to mean a cause or a factor. As with so many jargon-words it seems to have become popular in business presentations before spreading like a computer virus to infect the general population. Very quickly it began to lose its freshness, its implication of driving ambition, of driven personalities urgently making things happen. So we began to talk of ‘key’ drivers, as if the world were full of forces pushing markets and people, but we had identified the really important ones.

‘Key’ has been a clichéd variant of ‘important’ for so long that it has lost its original metaphorical meaning, that of a unique thing that will unlock a problem. And a ‘key driver’ has been so worn featureless by overuse that it probably wouldn’t even open the door of the Tardis any more.